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The Columbian Exchange and Diseases


Works Cited

Smallpox (1492-1600)

Smallpox was a mere childhood disease in Europe at the time Columbus arrived in the Caribbean.  Europeans only dealt with it as that, as they had never experienced catastrophic proportions of the disease.  However, the natives in North, South, and Central America had no contact except with each other for thousands of years after their ancestors had crossed into the North American continent over the Bering Strait.  Any chances for smallpox exposure had been wiped out by the end of the 15th Century.  So when the disease was brought over by the Europeans, the native peoples had no immunity to it and no chance to prepare for this disease that was so strange to them.
Smallpox was first brought over to the New World by a ship from Spain in 1518.  It was on Hispaniola, which is the current Dominican Republic and Haiti that this ship landed.  The disease wrecked havoc upon the native Taíno people that lived on Hispaniola.  After smallpox had transferred from the Spanish to the Taíno, it did not take long for the disease to take its course.  And when it had, half of the Taíno people were dead, allowing for the Spanish to easily control the Caribbean island (MSN Learning & Research-Smallpox 2).
Before long, smallpox had spread from the island of Hispaniola to the mainland of Yucatan Peninsula and Mexico.  And perhaps what might be considered the most deadly and fateful epidemic of the Conquest Period was the toll the disease took on the Aztec Empire.  A conquest lead by Hernan Cortés into the depths of Mexico began the death toll for the Aztec people.  Cortés reached the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlán in November of 1519, unknowlingly bringing the deadly and fateful disease with the army that he had brought to conquer the great empire.  When his plans to seize the city failed in 1520, Cortés had no idea as to what would find him once his army returned to the great city.  After Cortés had left the city, the disease struck the Aztec people.  This account can be found in the book "Broken Spears" edited by Miguel Leon-Portilla.
          It began to spread...striking everywhere in the city and killing
          a vast number of our people.  Sores erupted on our faces,
          our breasts, our bellies; we were covered with agonizing sores
          from head to foot.  The illness was so dreadful that no one could
          could walk or move.  The sick were so utterly helpless that they
          could only lie on their beds like corpses, unable to move their limbs
          or even their heads.  They could not lie face down or roll from one
          side to the other.  If they did move their bodies, they screamed
          with pain.  A great many died from this plauge, and many other
          died of hunger.  They could not get up to search for food, and
          everyone else was too sick to care for them, so they starved to
          death in their beds. (Portilla 92-93)
When Cortés came back to Tenochtitlán in 1521, he was met with a disease ravaged people, unable to fight for their own land and lives.  Even in an article by Geoffrey Cowley, the words of Bernal Diaz, Cortés' chronicler speak of the massive destruction they saw.  "'We could not walk without treading on the bodies and heads of dead Indians.  I have read about the destruction of Jerusalem, but I do not think the mortality was greater there than here in Mexico....Indeed, the stench was so bad that no one could endure it...and even Cortes was ill from the odors which assailed his nostrils.'" (Cowley 1).  Also according to Cowley's article, in Mexico only, the population of natives fell from 30 million people in 1519 to only 3 million people by 1568.  Even though there was devestation to other areas of the New World, this was by far the most catastrophic of all the smallpox epidemics (Cowley 1).  Yet, one other great nation was yet to be destroyed by the aid of smallpox.  The great Incan Empire in current day Peru was also struck by the disease, although not to the tremendous degree that the Aztecs suffered.  Civil war was already being waged among the Incas before Pizzaro reached the large empire.  The disease killed the Incan ruler, Huayna Capac in 1925, as well as nearly 100,000 Incans in their capital city, Cuzco (MSN Learning & Research-Smallpox 3).
Overall, this disease almost completely wiped out a native population of 40 to 50 million peoples in the New World.  Some estimates of decimation have been at a devastating rate of 90%.  Without this deadly disease, history books would be written differently, perhaps celebrating the victories of the native peoples instead of their sad and horrid defeat.  But it should be known that the defeat not only came from the sword of the Spanish and Portuegese empires, but also from the germ of smallpox from the Old World.